Chinese Dragon trailed the tightly-packed field of six for much of the journey before finding room along the inside to reach even terms with the German-bred Vega's Lord, who was ridden by Chad Schvaneveldt, getting up just in time. Last year's San Francisco Mile winner, Charmo, settled for third, 1 1/2 lengths behind the first two, with Martin Pedroza aboard.
"Keeping him covered up made the race today," said Smith. "He runs much better that way. Once I got to the leader, he really dug in and we got the nod."
The San Francisco Mile is Northern California's only grade II race and the region's richest as well.
Though highly competitive in Southern California last year, Chinese Dragon gained his first graded stakes victory for owners Michael Carter, Richard T. Hale Jr., the Roncelli Family Trust, et al. About 25 people wearing white Chinese hats descended on the winner's circle following the victory.
Trained by Bob Hess Jr., Chinese Dragon, a 5-year-old son of Stravinsky, earned his first victory since taking the Sir Beaufort in December 2005 at Santa Anita, although he has had just four starts since then. The mile specialist, now perfect in two starts on the Golden Gate lawn, showed much ability last year at Santa Anita. He ran third, a head behind the winning Milk It Mick, in the Frank Kilroe Mile Handicap (gr. IT), and was second in the Arcadia Handicap (gr. IIT), 1 1/2 lengths behind Silent Name. That was his last start. The SF Mile victory was worth $165,000 and increased Chinese Dragon's earnings to $513,492 with a record of 7-2-1 in 12 starts.
"When he slashed through on the inside he won the race," said Hess. "Mike said he tried to pull up when he got in front. He likes to play cat-and-mouse with other horses. Mike did a good job letting him drift out so that he knew (Vega's Lord) was there."
Hess has high hopes for Chinese Dragon this year.
"We're looking at the Breeders' Cup Mile and the Woodbine Mile and will work backward from that," said Hess. "He needs soft ground because he's a big, heavy horse and tough on himself, but he has presence, and he has charisma. He's cool and knows it, too."
Grade I winner Becrux, the 11-10 choice for trainer Neil Drysdale in a field of five reduced by the scratch of Sound Breeze, was on the lead for more than half a mile but stopped after six furlongs and came home last, more than 22 lengths behind the winner.
"As easy as he was going the first part of it I thought, 'they're never going to see us today,'" said jockey Russell Baze. "When Chad came up to us, I asked him to go and he couldn't. He got really tired and was gasping for air after the race."
In spite of trailing as Becrux set a moderate pace of :24 and :48 3/5, Chinese Dragon was never far off the lead, angling outside of Becrux on the final turn before dropping back down on the inside for the stretch run. Vega's Lord, after pressing Becrux, had a clear advantage after six furlongs went in 1:12 1/5. He came off the rail at the head of the stretch giving the winner room to rally, but proved difficult to run down.
"He ran too good to lose," lamented Schvaneveldt of Vega's Lord.
Charmo, the Julio Canani charge who had been so impressive winning the race last year -- but who hasn't won since -- was poised for a big run at the head of the lane after fanning out on the turn, but his closing kick failed to materialize.
The third choice in the small field, Chinese Dragon paid $6.60, $3.20 and $2.40. Vega's Lord, making his second start for Drysdale since transferring to the U.S. from Germany for owner Gary Tanaka, ran a much-improved race while returning $6 and $3.40. Charmo was $2.40 to show.
The Fourteenth, sent off at 74-1, finished eight lengths in front of Becrux, who won the Woodbine Mile (Can-i) last fall but had been sidelined since a seventh-place finish in the Citation Handicap (gr. IT) at Hollywood Park in November.
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